Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You. at the Serpentine Gallery
Barbara Kruger has long addressed large questions as an artist, exploring relations between women and the patriarchy, and the ubiquitous cajoling of the consumer world. She began developing her provocative, bold photo and text collages in 1977, the visual language rooted in the artist’s prior career as a designer and picture editor for Condé Nast. Having recently turned 79, the New Jersey native now has her first solo institutional exhibition in London in 23 years. Thinking of
You. I Mean Me. I Mean You., marks Kruger’s return to Serpentine South following her participation in the 1994 group exhibition Wall to Wall held at the same gallery.
Back in the 1980s, Kruger’s punchy, wry collages were in the cultural firmament, installed in public spaces and projected onto buildings and billboards alike. The Serpentine’s new site-specific exhibition features the American’s video reconfigurations of many of her most significant works (she has dubbed them “replays”). Four previous incarnations of the show were carefully modified to exploit the diverse spaces in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York’s MoMA. A lover of architecture, the artist has expressed admiration for the Kensington Gardens-based gallery’s elegance, whilst clarifying the need to scale down on the US versions. The London exhibition extends to outside the gallery, where electric London black cabs emblazoned in her slogans and banners grab the attention. In March and April, immersive screens of Kruger’s work will appear at Outernet Arts’ The Now Building in Soho.
The first room at Serpentine rips into the senses. Straight ahead is a video reworking of her iconic Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am), 1987/2019. A radical take on French philosopher René Descartes’ famous proposition, “I think, therefore I am,” this originally static work has been transformed into an animated puzzle, the pieces combining to a noisy soundtrack of ticking clocks. Around the walls of the opening space have been stuck a bewildering array of images seized by Kruger from all corners of the social media landscape, united by the debt they appear to owe to the artist’s trademark aesthetic. A rather discombobulating soundscape throws up a woman’s voice asking, “Hello?” on repeat, perhaps a metaphor for the attention-seeking nature of many social media posts.
The American’s emblematic, Untitled (Your Body is a Battlefield) work, created in 1989 as a poster for the Women’s March on Washington that year in support of reproductive freedom, has also been accorded the video reconfiguration treatment here, adapted for an LED screen. Kruger splits a woman’s face into two halves with positive and negative exposures, the image doubly conjuring up a frontline. In the years that followed, the rally rousing image would be carried by protesters all over the globe. Today, with the US Supreme Court having in July 2022 overturned Roe v Wade, making abortion illegal in many US states, the revitalised work’s cry for freedom now carries extra vehemence.
Another room rarely used for exhibitions, facing out to Kensington Gardens, is the setting for Untitled (Forever), 2017. Here, huge black and white text featuring extracts from a 1928 lecture by Virginia Woolf and George Orwell’s 1984 fill the space. Menacing words uttered in that dystopian vision by the fictive totalitarian regime’s grand inquisitor, O’Brien, dominate the floor: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever.” A “you” uttered by Woolf in her quoted speech, a clarion call for women’s rights, is rendered on an enormous scale on the central wall as if viewed beneath a gargantuan magnifying glass. Elsewhere, a different text concludes with Kruger’s own line, “This is about you. I mean me. I mean you.”
The domed central gallery here sees the first showing in the UK of Untitled (No Comment), 2020, an immersive three-channel video installation weaving together short footage discovered on social media platforms with questions, statements and quotes from the divergent figures of French Enlightenment writer Voltaire and a wordsmith of contemporary times, the American rapper, Kendrick Lamar. In years past, Kruger made collages, which, it might be argued, anticipated the meme, and comprehended going viral before it became a thing. Here, she copies the memes of others. Thrown into the whirl of imagery and sound are blurry selfies, hairstyle tutorials, acrobats and animated cats, all foregrounding 21st-century modes of content consumption.
Pledge, Will, Vow (1988/2020), a three-channel video work, shows Kruger casting her critical eye on, respectively, the US Pledge of Allegiance, marriage vows and the last will, bringing to the surface the various methods of narrative construction. Each is typed on-screen as if being composed and revised in real time. The artist sarcastically reworks the US Pledge of Allegiance, transforming, “to the flag of the United States of America” into “to the flag of Divided Sentiments…Deluded Fantasy…”
Barbara Kruger’s distinctive visual language has lost none of its capacity to throw into sharp relief societal issues regarding power, gender, class and consumerism. Throughout this absorbing exhibition, one finds the septuagenarian artist reinvigorating iconic work from her career, testifying to the all-consuming omnipotence of social media whilst simultaneously highlighting the endemic culture of narcissism that lies at its heart. And yet she manipulates the language of social media with all the dexterity that she formerly manipulated the lexicon of advertising, like the master of her craft she is.
Image: Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.,(Installation view, 1 February – 17 March 2024, Serpentine South)
Photo: George Darrell
Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You. is at the Serpentine Gallery from 1st February until 17th March 2024. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.